From the cradle to the grave

Days of rioting in Mea She'arim came to an end this week when rabbinical leaders called for a halt.

Haredim mea shm 298.88 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Haredim mea shm 298.88 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
It began with the hospitalization of a critically injured three-month-old Jewish infant in a Jerusalem hospital. The baby boy had telltale signs of widespread physical abuse, including brain hemorrhaging, edema, severe bruising and bite marks. His 19-year-old father, Yisrael Valis - who had initially told police and paramedics that the baby had slipped out of his hands - was subsequently placed under arrest after admitting during police questioning to having beaten his child repeatedly. Valis, who allegedly hurled the baby against the wall after he started to cry, is suspected of biting, beating, pinching and punching the infant since birth because he "did not accept him" due to a defect the child was born with in his neck muscles, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said. As the infant lay dying in the children's intensive care unit of Hadassah University Hospital at Ein Kerem, and prosecutors prepared to change the charges filed against the haredi father from severe abuse to manslaughter, the threats began. The spiritual leader of the vehemently anti-Zionist Edah Haredit - of which the prominent Valis family was a member - called the detention of the young father nothing less than "a Pessah-eve blood libel identical to those concocted by the Europeans against the Jews." The remarks by Rabbi Yitzhak Weiss, which were made on the eve of the infant's death, were followed by calls from other extremist elements in the haredi world to riot in protest and to "make Jerusalem burn" if the suspected baby killer were not released, even though police repeatedly said that he had admitted to beating his child to death. Haredi legislators scoffed at the police's claim. "Under police pressure, he would have even admitted to killing Jesus," said MK Avraham Ravitz of United Torah Judaism. Some members of the fringe sector of the community even warned that they would not allow the baby to be buried, threats which were never realized, since the infant was quickly laid to rest. BUT WITH emotions in the close-knit haredi world now at a boiling point - fueled by the suspect's wife's declaration of support for her detained husband, and coupled with what the haredi legislator said are long-standing haredi feelings of "persecution" by police - the violence was only waiting to happen. Indeed, the start of Pessah would mark the beginning of three nights of rioting in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood, during which protesters set scores of garbage bins on fire, pelted police and motorists with stones and otherwise blocked traffic in the area. Jerusalem's most well-known haredi neighborhood, which had known scores of protests over Shabbat desecration and alleged grave desecration in both Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country, was suddenly the virtually unprecedented scene of demonstrations in support of a criminal detainee. The price tag for the violence, city officials said, was estimated at NIS 140,000, which included the destruction of 30 municipal garbage bins. The ugly scenes, which were repeatedly broadcast on TV and which figured prominently in the newspapers, coupled with what officials said was increasing doubts about Valis's innocence, spurred rabbinical leaders to issue calls for a cessation of the violence - something the bereaved family had already requested last Friday. "The intention is to get this topic off the front pages, which is only doing us damage," said Shmuel Popenheim, editor in chief of Haedah, the weekly mouthpiece of the Edah Haredit, which had been spearheading the protests. "All these demonstrations do not add anything to our cause." SOME IN the haredi world were clearly hoping that quiet would help their clear-cut goal of obtaining Valis's immediate release - at least in the short term - ahead of his high-profile manslaughter trial. The alleged baby killer, who has been remanded in custody through next week ahead of his arraignment, could be released on bail or placed under house arrest by the Jerusalem District Court as early as next week, if probation officers determine that he does not pose a danger to the public. Valis has no other children and no past criminal record, making such a possibility more likely, Justice Ministry officials said this week. Indeed, even as some rabbis in the haredi community are said to have begun to express their doubts as to Valis's innocence - at least privately - haredi legislators toed the line, saying that he was not guilty of the crime. "There is a wholehearted belief that this young man is innocent. The community does not see him as a criminal," Ravitz said. At the same time, others in the haredi world, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they viewed the haredi violence of the last week in support of a criminal suspect as "a dangerous precedent," whatever the facts if the specific case may be. "It's one thing to be sure that he is getting glatt kosher meals, and that he has phylacteries in his detention cell, but this is crossing the red line," an adviser to a senior rabbi said.